Fighting the fear in Myanmar

For the first time in twenty years, the Myanmar junta organised elections. No one believed this vote was free and democratic. Yet it is not all about repression and standstill in the Golden Land between China, Thailand and India.

The time and place of meeting are altered several times. I take a detour and look over my shoulder regularly, as instructed. Will my amateurish tricks outwit the regimes’ professional spies? I guess not. Our rendezvous is a public space, considered much safer than a closed one. Each time a person walks in, we start discussing the pagodas (temples), ‘nats’ (ghosts and demons) and the Buddhist signification of colors.

In the 2007, my interlocutor participated in the protests of monks against the military regime. Today he is still in touch with religious and political leaders striving for a change in Myanmar. A few weeks of questioning and detention have left some traces. Still he isn’t bitter or cynical about it. Nor does he show any resignation about what happened to him. There is only a shadow of fear. After about half an hour, the conversation breaks off, as the insecurity becomes too big. I fall back on my ‘undercover’ as a tourist, leaving him as a part of the golden scenery I admire.

Fifty years of loneliness

According to Win Tin, fear is the greatest problem in his land. He repeats a mantra shared by journalists, health workers, artists, politicians, monks and expats. But Win Tins knows what het is speaking about. He was one of the most prominent and outspoken politicians of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Noble Price Winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The military junta kept Win Tin imprisoned for nineteen years. Therefore he doesn’t want to give in on fear anymore. Otherwise these long years of confinement would be meaningless. However, the 82-year old activist hasn’t become reckless.

We meet in a bar of one of the big hotels in Yangon. It is the last day of my stay in the country, as this meeting would most likely result in somebody shadowing me afterwards. Each interview would then cause serious problems to everyone talking to me, even when we wouold have an innocent conversation.

Less then 30 seconds after Win Tin sits down, someone takes the table next to us. Win Tin changes his chair ‘to avoid staring into the light’. It gives us a chance to talk quietly for a log while, without our neighbor interfering. But every now and then, he stands up, walks past us en sits down again.

‘What makes staying in prison different then a life under constant watch and with repeated intimidation?’ Win Tin responds when I ask how he overcomes the omnipresent anguish. The monk-activist, too, will answer this rhetorical on the basis of his own experience: ‘The difference lies in the interrogation techniques of the security services.’

Finally, Win Tin thanks me for my interest – ‘We are solitary in this country. The world ought to know what is really happening within these borders.’ Win Tin wants to leave the bar before I do. His two “guards” will be waiting for him. They have been following him everywhere since 2008, when he was “released” from prison.

A couple of hours before I met Nyan Win, the lawyer and spokesman of Aung San Suu Kyi –the Lady, as he and all Myanmarese call her with a mixture of respect and affection. Nyan Win is about the only person who spoke with her on a regular basis when she was still under house arrest. It could happen each time when the military men accepted his arguments to meet her.

They didn’t accept his motive on June 29th, when she wanted to confer with him about taking legal actions against the government regarding the electoral laws. The night we meet, he is permitted to go to her place. And give her the best regards from MO*.

Nyan Win is gentle, less political or ideological then Win Tin. As far I could tell, nobody was listening at his door. However he showed vigilance every time somebody came up or down the stairs, to make sure who he/she was. I would not say that he is fearful, on the contrary. He’s brave in a quiet way. But he is not foolish. Nobody knows the regime Lady is fighting better than he.

Not only political activists are burdened with fear. I go to a few humanitarian ngo’s in the Ayeryawady delta. They have been working there since after the tropical storm Nargis (2008). They seem unhappy to see me. Instead of the usual international questions (What’s your name? Where are you from?) I only get this worried query: do you have a permission to travel?

At one of the organizations, the door is closed upon my unannounced arrival, followed by a quick phone call to the headquarters in Yangon. Only when I can show the requested paper, carrying all the necessary stamps and signatures, there is relief on all faces. The travel permit is passed around and photocopied, but the answer remains unchanged: ‘We are not allowed to talk to journalists. It is better if you leave.’

Fear rules this nation, ever since the military seized power in 1962 and isolated the country from the rest of the world. Most say that after fifty years of solitude this terror has become a part of their culture, as well as the many strategies people developed to avoid the unpredictable wrath of the dictators. Thus today the fear is more invisible but also more indestructible then ever.

Fools’ voices

‘We need enough fools to speak up, or nothing will change in Myanmar’, says Ludu Sein Win. As a veteran of free speech, he sat in prison from 1967 to 1980, with ten years in solitary confinement. The regime never brought up a formal charge or started a trial but it was clear that his journalistic work was the reason for locking him up. Sein Win was not intimidated by this experience. He still writes two articles a day for more then twenty magazines. A publisher says that Myanmar has more then 140 different weekly journals and a comparable amount of monthly reviews. He prefers to stay anonymous to protect his own magazines. There has been progress in the last ten years. Before then, two government-runned papers were the only printed “information” in Myanmar.

But does this new opulence of titles offer more opportunity for criticism and free speech? It doesn’t, really. Sein Win says he uses metaphors and foreign examples. ‘If I write that Great Britain and the US act like in the Far West and only understand the language of guns, most people will also be reminded of the Military Regime and its use of weapons and violence to maintain power.’ The anonymous publisher uses the same method. But all have to rely on the fact that the military censors lack the schooling to understand images and subtle comparisons in every page they have to approve.

The younger generations doesn’t care about the subtleties of what the elder see as resistance. Nor do they form mass protest movements; they simply try to leave Myanmar. They’re giving it up. Thxa Soe still doubts between staying and leaving. ‘Everything in this country is fake,’ he says. It is noon in Yangon, and though he hasn’t found time to get properly dressed, he is already agitated about the censorship that bluntly cuts everything to waste. All opinions, information and creation are reduced to a surrealistic images, far removed from what people experience every day.

Still a teenager, Thxa Soe – aka Soe Moe Aung – has released several albums with electronic remixes of Birmese music. Not to the amusement of the censors, who think that he ‘undermines the values and traditions of Myanmar’. ‘Bullshit,’ says Thxa Moe. ‘It is the military that tears this country to pieces. And those who keep silent out of fear for repression are just as guilty. We are spreading and duplicating the terror amongst ourselves, and this way we are maintaining the oppression’. By now, his mother decides it is time to eat lunch, and to shut up.

Mister Mangrove

‘A damaged ecosystem can be repaired so life can return there’. This could sound like a poorly veiled comparison with life in Myanmar, where ‘decades of political and social deforestation could be made undone’. But U Ohn is not speaking in images. Ohn is known as “Mr. Mangrove”. In the early nineties has was appointed as director of a deteriorated national park on the extinguished volcano Popa. For years later, all vegetation was restored. Ever since, U Ohn dedicates himself – with foreign support – to restoring the Mangrove forests in the Ayeryawady delta. The devastating passage of the Nargis cyclone on 2 May 2008, has proven U Ohn right.

According to the Tripartite Core Group – the Myanmar government, the association of Southeast Asian countries (Asean) and the United Nations – more than 140.000 peopled died; 50.000 houses were destroyed and 350.000 damaged; 4.100 schools had to be rebuilt and 600.000 hectares of farm land was flooded. Half of the cattle drowned, fisherman’s boats were destroyed and crops and farm tools were lost.

Only were the mangrove forest were not replaced by shrimp farms, they formed a buffer against the flooding. Now the government wants to get rid of the shrimp and supports the restoration and expansion of the forests.

But U Ohn and his Forest Resource Environment Development and Conservation Association (FREDA) are aiming for more, while in the north of Myanmar deforestation of teak woods still goes on. ‘There is nothing wrong with forestry rules and regulations. Only that they are constantly broken by people who have strong ties with the government.’ Struggling to preserve the teak forest, U Ohn works closely with the local Kachin population and international ngo’s like Global Witness. Not only do they oppose the generals in Naypyidaw, but also the powerful Chinese companies, operating from Yunnan.

Decent funerals for everyone

‘We must not fear the dead, but the living’, says Kyaw Thu, another distinct voice from now civil society, that becomes more assertive. He is a celebrated actor-director and he was active in the production of more then two hundred films. I ask how one can have such an extensive curriculum in such a short lifetime. His wife, Daw Myint Myint Khin Pe, brings the laconic answer. ‘In Myanmar this is possible. It is one of the few miraculous opportunities in a country filled with hindrances, pitfalls, wolframs and rifles.’

In 2007 Kyaw Thu en Myint Myint donated some rice to the protesting monks. This was no longer considered a religious or traditional gesture but a political position. So the couple was interrogated for seven days. Still, they are happy it didn’t go any further. Or at least not much. Kyaw Thu was banned from acting and making films. By that time, man and husband were already busy doing other things. In 2001, they started the Free Funeral Service Society (FFSS), to make sure everybody gets a decent funeral, especially the extremely poor. Thanks to individual donations, FFSS is a great success, with no less then 80.000 funerals in the last ten years. Meanwhile, they also started a library, English lessons and a small hospital, with forty (volunteer) doctors treating more then 200 patients a day. ‘We started this to help to poor. Now we want to change society’, says Kyaw Thu. ‘Today the system is focused exclusively on profit. Everything revolves around bribes and corruption, even with doctors and municipal services. But we do not interfere with politics, so we manage to survive.’

The Electrified

Yangon, quarter past six p.m., the city seemed made for this moment. In Sule Pagoda, the electric lights around the countless Buddha statues’ heads start flashing. Mothers, daughters, aged men, monks and nuns are quietly beating the bronze bells. They burn candles or incense, and poor water over the statues, muttering, while young girls titter around the occidental visitor. The city is turning more quiet, especially in the area between Sule Pagoda Road and the banks of the Yangon river. Under ach tree sits a couple, enjoying the privacy while the dusk turns darker. Street sellers and thee vendors gather their wares, stools and parasols. Dark clouds are announcing monsoon showers.

In this part of Yangon, the colonial buildings are largely taken over by government administration. Yet still they look as if nobody lived or worked there after the British left. Grandeur mixed with decay’s sadness. Life seems a touristic postcard. But it is just an illusion. Hard evidence about poverty and wealth are difficult to find, according to Sanaka Samarasinha, head of the UNDP (United Nations Development Program). Nevertheless, their own research indicated that out of 18.500 households, 32 % lives below the national poverty line. Malnutrition is suffered by 34 % of the children. In the countryside, only 55 % has access to reliably drinkable water. A mere 38 % of the households get electricity.

Meanwhile the red, blue and yellow lights keep flashing around the head of the Enlightened, who already knew it a thousand years ago: life is suffering. Buddha also knew that the cause of this suffering is greed. In the Western, it is readily assumed that it is personal greed, that forms the source of unhappiness for rich and poor. In Myanmar it is chrystal clear that it is not the people dwelling in the streets, who get incited by greed. On the contrary, their suffering is caused by the stinginess of a small clique of soldiers, their civilian cronies and international trade partners, who shut their eyes for the misery and oppression. (end)


Background: To the polls

At the general elections of 7 november, 27.3 million enfranchised Myanmarese can elect one national parliament (two chambers) and 14 regional assemblies. The People’s Assembly (Pyithu Hluttaw) has 440 seats, the Nationalities’ Chamber (Amyotha Hluttaw) 224 seats and the regional assemblies together 665 seats. In each of the parliaments, a quarter of all seats are reserved for members appointed by the army. Only political parties that are registered and accepted by the Electoral Commission, can participate in the elections. Each registration costs 500 US dollar of 500.000 kyat at the common exchange rate (1.000 kyat for a dollar, whereas the official rate is 6 kyat for a dollar). Each individual candidate is charged another 500 dollar. This is never a problem for the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the National Unity Party (NUP), who are both founded by the successive military dictators. They respectively have 1.100 and 975 candidates.


The National Democratic Force (NDF) is the party of people who left the National League for Democracy (NLD) of Aung San Suu Kyi when she decided not to participate in the elections. It is 161 candidates strong. A great many of the 47 participating parties are ethnical. They mostly focus on the federal state, where they have many supporters. The NLD is boycotting the elections, for three reasons: (1) because it doesn’t accept the 2008 Constitution; (2) because the mandates won in the 1990 elections was never exercised; and (3) because their imprisoned leaders had to be expelled from the party in order to meet with the imposed requirements. This would probably also apply on Aung San Suu Kyi, although it is questionable if house arrest equals imprisonment. She emphasizes now that voting is a right but not a duty. It appears like she is implicitly calling for a boycott of the elections.

Burma or Myanmar?

Since 1989 the full official name of Burma is the “Union of Myanmar”. The United Nations have accepted this name, while most opposition groups and anglosaxon countries continue to refer to the country as Burma, thus symbolically resisting the military that imposed this change. The etymological origin of Myanmar is a combination of fast (myan) and strong (mar). The name is used since the twelfth century (AD) as a reference to the territory and the dominant ethnic group in the central plain. Burma is a first Portuguese and later British corruption of Baman, another name for the ethnic majority. Using the words Myanmar and Myanmarese, we can avoid the confusion between Burmese (ethnical group) and Burmanese (inhabitants). In 1989 the generals also changed the name of the then capital (Rangoon became Yangon) and of the big central flowing river (Irrawaddy became Ayeryawady). Since November 2005, the capital is Naypyidaw, a new built city in central Myanmar.


Myanmar is divided in seven federal states and seven divisions. The states lay at the outer rim of the country. They are largely based on the big ethnic minorities (Shan, Mon, Chin, Kayin, Kaya, Kachin, Rakhine) while the divisions are in the centre and each have a Burmese majority (Sagaing, Yangon, Mandalay, Tanitharyi, Bago, Magwe en Ayeryawady). The battle between the ethnic minorities and the Burmese majority is centuries old. It has been intensified by the British colonial government. The first armed uprise – by the Karen liberation army – began in 1949, only a few months after the independence. Myanmar contains in total more then 100 ethnic groups and languages. Smaller ethnicities, like the Danu, Akha, Kokang, Lahu, Naga, Palaung, Pao, Rohyinga, Tavoyan and Wa have no own political territory. But some – like the Wa and Pao – have armed groups. The most oppressed minority are the Rohingya. They are not recognized as citizens and are only allowed to marry or to move if the government permits them this.

Sense and nonsense of the boycott against Myanmar

In 1962 the army seized power in Burma. In the summer of 1988 a rebellion made the regime stagger for the first time, but by September of the same year, the generals regained a firm position. The constitutions of 2008, just after the cyclone Nargis, as well as the upcoming elections will consolidate the armies’ power for at least another decade. The political opposition, with the prominent Aung San Suu Kyi, has been silenced for years. The uprising of 2007 failed because all 400.000 soldiers are backing up the junta, even if it comes down to a hard attitude against monks.

Since 1988 the West agrees on the need to democratize Myanmar. Solidarity movements launched boycott and other campaigns. As the generals were not listening to diplomacy, the EU and USA opted for political and economical sanctions. Repeatedly, Aung San Suu Kyi pointed out the necessity of such actions and sanctions, as the only way to hit the economical arteries of the regime. She calls on a boycott of tourism and even questions humanitarian aid.

The western sanctions are definitely not full proof. The continuing presence of Total and other companies proof this. Also, Thailand, China and India don’t care about these sanctions and make them ineffective. On top of that, the junta seems more interested in isolating Myanmar then in opening the borders. ‘The worst thing about the sanctions is that they have no impact on the energy and hardwood export, the real gold-veins of Myanmar’, says a foreigner who is working in Myanmar for years. ‘Meanwhile they undermine the labor-intensive tourism and textile production. So in the end the generals and their cronies stay in power while the vulnerable people are having hard times. Finally there is also unacceptable collateral damage: the humanitarian assistance to Myanmar stays at two dollar per person per year, which is the lowest level in the entire world.’

Thant Myint U, grandson of former UN secretary general U Thant, doesn’t believe that the sanctions will lead to change and democratization. In a conversation with Nyan Win (lawyer and spokesman of Aung San Suu Kyi), he agreed with Joseph Stiglitz, who visited Myanmar end 2009 and pleaded to at least make sure that the sanctions would spare the agriculture.

When I ask about his view on the boycott of tourism, Nyan Win says: ‘I invite all travelers from East and West to come to our country and to witness the reality with their own eyes.’ Believe me, this was on the record.

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